Defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson buckled to the artificial turf at U.S. Bank Stadium, clutching his right calf as Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray threw a goal-line incompletion in the Vikings' Oct. 30 win.
Tomlinson barely touched Cardinals right guard Will Hernandez before going down from what the sixth-year veteran called "my first injury in the league."
"Felt like somebody kicked me in the back of the leg," Tomlinson said this week. "A lot of different factors could've caused [it]. But just pretty much felt like I popped it, I guess you could say."
Tomlinson was a full participant in Wednesday's practice for the first time since straining his right calf muscle, setting up what would be a welcomed return for the Vikings defense on Sunday against the Jets.
The 28-year-old standout defensive lineman has missed the past four games because of a strained right calf muscle, marking the longest absence of his NFL career. He had played in 87 of 88 games, having been sidelined by COVID-19 protocols last season.
Because this was his "first injury," Tomlinson said he didn't know how long he was going to be out. The Vikings medical staff wanted to take it slow with a soft-tissue injury on a 325-pound defensive lineman's leg. Tomlinson said he was close to playing Thanksgiving night against the Patriots, when he was listed questionable and went through a pregame workout, but the team erred on the side of caution.
"It was more just about trusting things," Tomlinson said. "Making sure the muscles were ready for the pounding you're going to take during the game."
Tomlinson played well through 6½ games, leading Vikings interior defensive linemen as a pass rusher and run stopper while ascending the ranks leaguewide. Without him, the Vikings have leaned on a rotation of Jonathan Bullard, James Lynch, Khyiris Tonga and Ross Blacklock along with starting nose tackle Harrison Phillips. They've seen mixed results as the 21st-ranked defense in points allowed and 31st in yardage.
Tomlinson's absence has been felt in the four-man pass rush, where the Vikings have lacked an interior push without him. Interior pressure could particularly help on Sunday against Jets quarterback Mike White, who "sits shallow in the pocket," according to Phillips. He played against White last year as a member of Bills defense that nabbed four interceptions in a win.
"We've missed him for sure," Phillips said. "He's just such a large man like  pounds or whatever he is. He's a force out there. His energy is contagious and infectious."
Younger Vikings teammates often turn to Tomlinson, who in his second season in Minnesota took on a leadership role as the defense transitioned to a 3-4 front he'd had experience with while playing for Alabama and the Giants.
Familiarity quickly turned into results. He was an instant impact pass rusher under first-year coordinator Ed Donatell, putting himself on track for a career high in quarterback pressures before the calf injury. He has 1.5 sacks, but only five NFL interior defenders win at a higher rate than him as a pass rusher, according to Pro Football Focus.
"We've seen flashes of it before," edge rusher Danielle Hunter said. "For him to be coming back, it's really a plus because that's something that's kind of been lacking is the interior rush. But you know you got guys like Ross that's elevating his game each and every week, but with DT coming back, it's a plus."
Tomlinson's ability to defeat one-on-one blocks, which interior linemen often see in the Vikings defense with Hunter and Za'Darius Smith on the edges, is paramount. His pass rush win rate – 16.4% as charted by PFF – trails only Smith (23.8%) and Hunter (18.7%) on the team and isn't far behind Rams star Aaron Donald, who leads all interior defenders at 19.1%.
"We need that," Hunter said.